Plan Bee

Nobody knows what’s killing off honeybees. But several Minnesotans are in the vanguard of the fight to save this vital species.

Hackensack, Minnesota, 45 miles north of Brainerd, is a north-woods burg too small to bother with a traffic light. The speed limit drops as State Highway 371 passes through town, but drivers who slow down for less than a minute on their way to Walker or the Northern Lights Casino would never guess that tiny Hackensack is home to a company generally recognized as the world’s largest supplier of products and equipment to a global industry.

The industry is beekeeping, and the company, Mann Lake Ltd., is housed in six steel buildings located on the outskirts of town. Its owners, Jack Thomas and his wife, Betty, founded Mann Lake in 1984, as a part-time hobby business.

Today, Mann Lake employs almost 100 people in Hackensack, and a dozen more at a California branch. It has customers around the world, and its product catalog runs to 123 pages—protective clothing, honey-collecting equipment, feed, medications, wooden frames to house honeybee colonies. The company also supplies commercial beekeepers with feed—high-fructose corn syrup, sold by the tanker truckload.

Thomas has reason to worry about the long-term prospects for his business: All over the globe, honeybees are dying en masse, victims of a mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder. To commercial beekeepers, CCD is devastating. For the rest of us, the implications are far graver than any possible shortage of honey or beeswax, potentially impacting most of the foods we eat. Which is why Jack Thomas, as well as researchers at the University of Minnesota, are scrambling to find a fix for the problem.

Colony collapse disorder was first recognized and named in the winter of 2006/2007, when beekeepers began to report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that 30 to 90 percent of their colonies had disappeared.

The next winter, things got worse. USDA apiary inspectors surveyed a large sample of America’s 1,500 commercial beekeepers and found that 36 percent of the country’s 2.4 million managed hives were lost. That’s a death rate 11 percent higher than in 2007 and 40 percent higher than in 2006.

The impact goes far beyond honey production. Pollination by honeybees is directly responsible for roughly a third of the food produced in the United States. Corn, soybeans, and wheat do not require bees for pollination, but most fruits and many vegetables do—apples, almonds, blueberries, pumpkins, melons, even onions and carrots. More than 130 crops in all, valued at about $15 billion annually, need to be pollinated by bees.

John Jacobson, owner of the Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, says a collapse of the honeybee population tops the list of calamities—including drought and hailstorms—that apple growers worry about. He has 75 acres planted with apple trees, 24 acres with strawberries, and 10 acres with pumpkins. His operation hinges entirely on pollination by the honeybee colonies he rents and places in his fields every spring. “If you don’t get the pollination, it doesn’t matter if the hailstorm comes, because there’s nothing to wipe out.”

Beekeepers like to repeat an observation, attributed to Albert Einstein, to the effect that if honeybees disappeared, the human race would starve in four years. But Einstein said no such thing, according to University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak, and if he had, he’d have been overstating the case. What would disappear, along with the commercial bee industry, Spivak says, would be much of the modern agricultural system—the “monoculture” practice of planting more than a few acres with the same crop. If farmers had to depend on wild pollinators such as bumblebees, says Spivak, bee-dependent crops could not be grown productively in single plots larger than about five acres. It is only the honeybee colonies trucked around the country and placed in fields by commercial beekeepers every spring that make possible a high yield from 100 acres of apples, not to mention a 1,000-acre almond orchard.

Minnesota has roughly 50 commercial beekeeping operators. Each winter, honey-bee colonies by the tens of thousands are loaded onto semi-trucks in Minnesota and the Dakotas and sent to California, where spring begins in February and almond growers alone need 1.3 million colonies—at about 40,000 or 50,000 bees per colony—for pollination. From coast to coast, truckloads of honeybees “follow the bloom” as spring moves from south to north, stopping to pollinate crops in different states: citrus in Florida, cranberries in New Jersey, blueberries in Maine. Then they return to their home bases for the summer to produce honey.

Mark Sundberg, of Sundberg Apiaries in Fergus Falls, is a third-generation beekeeper whose family has been in the business for almost 100 years. He began shipping bees to California about 15 years ago. Lately he has been sending five to seven semi-truckloads of honeybees to the West Coast each November—more than 2,000 colonies. They are kept in holding yards until February, then released into almond orchards near Fresno.

Last winter, Sundberg lost 40 percent of the bees he sent to California. Required inspections found them dead, diseased, mite-ridden, or otherwise unsuitable to be released into the orchards. “They got out there and the mites just chewed them up,” he says, adding that he may send fewer bees to California next year. Indeed, the heavy losses have left him wondering if it still makes sense to send any at all. 

THE EXACT REASON for the recent spike in bee mortality remains mysterious. Experts agree, however, that CCD represents not a new plague but a sort of tipping point that has been reached by a combination of forces, some of which have threatened honeybees for decades.

Darrel Rufer, president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, is a commercial beekeeper with about 3,500 colonies at an operation in Waverly.

He traces what he calls a “downhill slide” in the honeybee population to the 1984 appearance of a parasite called the tracheal mite, which was followed three years later by the arrival in the United States of a more deadly Asian cousin, the varroa mite. “Since then,” he says, “it’s just been one thing after another.”

Defending against varroa was so difficult and expensive that many beekeepers went out of business. The estimated number of U.S. hives dropped from 4.7 million in 1985 to 2.7 million in 1995. A pesticide called Apistan was effective against varroa for a few years, but it eventually became resistant. A second compound, developed by Jack Thomas in conjunction with a chemical company, was effective until 2005, when varroa again became resistant.

The varroa mite certainly contributes to CCD, Thomas says, but the pest is only one element in what he calls a “perfect storm” of deadly forces that lie behind the collapse. Honeybees are threatened by a pair of lethal viruses from Israel and Kashmir. Then there’s a native biological pathogen called Nosema and a newer cousin from Asia, Nosema ceranae. Diseases like foulbrood and chalkbrood play a role as well.

Also on the list of CCD suspects are the impact of chemical pesticides, a diminishing supply of natural vegetation, and the stress caused by trucking.

This May, as John Jacobson watched rented honeybees do their work in his White Bear apple orchard, he wondered how long he will be able to afford them—or to count on their availability at any price. “We growers are cheering for a solution to CCD,” he says. “We hope they’ll round the corner on it.”

“They” are researchers around the world who are working feverishly on solutions—and Minnesotans are in the thick of the fight. Michael Goblirsch, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota entomology department, was recently awarded $10,000 by the USDA to study the effects of Nosema ceranae. Vera Krischik, also at the U of M, has received a $175,000 grant to study the impact of insecticides.

Spivak, an internationally known authority on bees, is attacking CCD by breeding strains of disease-resistant honeybees. Her Minnesota Hygienic queens are in heavy demand, and she continues to experiment. But she points out that diseases are only one factor in the perfect storm that is CCD.

Thomas is attacking the problem from another angle, by developing feeds to strengthen bees, and new medications and chemical agents to fight viruses and mites. He is working with chemical companies on two new compounds to combat varroa mites. He hopes the first will be fully tested and approved sometime next year, with the second to follow in 2011.

Thomas also is working on a medication for Nosema ceranae, though he says progress is slow. Already on the market, however, are a variety of feeds, including a protein-rich mixture called Bee-Pro, that appear to strengthen colonies.
What is at stake in the fight against CCD? Thomas points to a demonstration in Arizona where a full acre of a cantaloupe field was tented off so that no flying insects could get in. “How many melons grew beneath that tent?” he demands. The answer is one. “That was on a vine that grew under the tent and got pollinated by a bee. Otherwise, zero.”

Jack Gordon is a Twin Cities writer.